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Attention new USGA CEO Mike Whan: Please keep the U.S. Open weird

February 19, 2021
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If you ask me for my favorite U.S. Open memories, I would mention Tiger Woods hobbling his way to victory at Torrey Pines, watching Justin Rose in person as he battled Merion to the bitter end and a pair of unforgettable Tour de Forces—Rory at Congressional and Martin Kaymer at Pinehurst. Journeying into the distant past, I’ve enjoyed researching—if not seeing—everything from Arnold Palmer at Cherry Hills all the way back to Francis Ouimet at Brookline. All of that is part of the fabric of golf’s history. And yet ... if you asked me what moments in modern U.S. Open lore shoot to my brain the fastest (and admittedly, it is a diseased brain), I’d also reel off the following:

• Phil Mickelson hitting own putt before it stopped rolling.

• The plinko-style greens at Chambers Bay.

• The attempt to sabotage Dustin Johnson mid-round at Oakmont as he chased his first major.

• Outgoing CEO Mike Davis going on TV to apologize for the conditions at Shinnecock Hills.

• Dozens of whining players, year after year, coming off the course after a 78 to solemnly intone that the USGA has “lost the course.”

Frankly, I love it. To plagiarize myself from 2018, “I want players to vanish bodily into brutal bunkers. I want putts to run for miles. I want to discover skeletons, weeks and months later, in the tall clumpy grass of the rough. I want the USGA to reign for one thousand years.” I stand by these words.

As you likely saw earlier this week, the USGA chose Mike Whan as its next CEO and the successor to Davis. By all accounts, selecting Whan was an easy decision after his successful 11-year tenure at the head of the LPGA, where he significantly raised the number of events and total prize money, and I have no doubt he’ll do all the important parts of running the governing body very well. He has what it takes to be a good face of the franchise. No worries on those fronts.

And yet, I have one special request for Whan, should he happen to find his way to this article and be willing to entertain a lowly writer: Please, sir, in your vaunted capacity as chief of the USGA, please, please, please, keep the U.S. Open weird.

Every major has its defining characteristics, from the calcified traditions (some beloved, some overdone) of Augusta National to the history and weather at the Open Championship to, uh, whatever the PGA Championship has. The U.S. Open has its history too, its great champions, and etc., but the U.S. Open is also notable for its unfailing strangeness. Mr. Whan, I implore: You must cultivate that strangeness, that eccentricity, that sheer stubborn iconoclastic strain that makes each tournament such a blast.

All across America, there are bumper stickers in small cities begging some higher power to stave off the tide of chain-store sameness. You may have seen them: “Keep Austin weird.” “Keep Durham dirty.” And today we’re asking the same of Whan. Whatever else happens, let the U.S. Open continue to be an enclave of oddity, a den of controversy and gossip and, once every three years or so, absolute calamity.

I’ve been studying Whan’s quotes since the announcement came down, and I like what I see so far. Take this bit, from his interview with Dave Shedloski for Digest:

“When I announced my departure from the LPGA, I said that I’m at the age where I sort of have one more big thing to do. I need to get some first-tee jitters again. I need to get nervous, and suffice it to say, I’m nervous. But I revel in that.”

That’s very good. What do we know about confident people with first-tee jitters? Well, something massive is about to happen. It could be a 350-yard bomb down the middle, or it could be a duck-hook through the plate-glass window of the mansion hugging the fairway. Either one is excellent. Ideally, we’d have both.

There was also this:

“I’ve got seven things that I think are going to be seven things for Mike Whan [to do], but I know from my experience with the LPGA that four are going to be wrong. I’m just not sure which four. I walked in with this vision of what I think are the right strategic priorities. But as I told Stu [Francis, USGA president], I’m going to need 100 days, 100 days to make sure that all this stuff I think is right is right."

Surprises like the Dustin Johnson rules imbroglio in 2016 have hurt the image of the USGA yet also given the U.S. Open an endearing strangeness.

David Cannon/Getty Images

If you’re like me, you badly want to know what the “seven things” are, but the fact that they exist at all is, I think, a good sign. Whan is clearly an ideas man and a shakeup artist rather than a simple steward—how could he have succeeded at the LPGA otherwise?—and what we know about the USGA is that it flourishes on big ideas. Some, yes, will be disasters, some will be brilliant, and if you like a little chaos in your golf diet, even the disasters will be brilliant in their own way.

(Still, I badly want him to write up those seven things and nail them to the door of the USGA like a modern-day Martin Luther.)

Most importantly, Whan has been quoted as saying “respect history, but make some.” That is an auspicious remark, in my mind, for the way it implies innovation and risk.

It goes without saying that Whan’s job goes a lot deeper than the U.S. Open; it’s not his only priority. The overall health of the game is first and foremost. However, it is the association’s flagship event, the moment when the USGA is most visible and the primary revenue generator for everything else the governing body does. We’ve been blessed with a few new and strange things in recent golf history—Bryson DeChambeau foremost among them—but nothing is quite as unique and occasionally bizarre in this sport as the U.S. Open. We expect it to be surprising, and almost every year, it still manages the feat of surprising us in new and interesting ways. It’s the colorful uncle of the major calendar, and of the many things Mike Whan will surely succeed at in his upcoming tenure at the USGA, I hope he also manages to keep the big show weird. We need it.